When he was growing up, Jack Moen's father had trouble with his heart. Moen wouldn't go so far as to say this set him on his future path, but he is currently a Post-baccalaureate Cardiac Researcher at National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland, researching heart rate variability as it relates to aging, heart pacing, and molecular mechanisms. Moen is passionate about his future as a biomedical researcher, a field he discovered while studying at CU Denver. This fall, Moen heads to Yale to get his PhD in the Molecular Medicine, Pharmacology, and Physiology track of the Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS). He says, "I can't say I'll end up in cardiovascular research down the road, but it was a really great place to start in terms of biomedical work, and the close association I had because of my dad was probably a factor."
Though Moen graduated with a dual major BS in Integrated Biology and Psychology and a minor in Chemistry in the spring of 2014, he started college at the University of Colorado Boulder as a business student. He says he knew after about a year that neither Boulder nor business was the right path for him. He transferred to Metropolitan State University and started to study science. He came to CU Denver in the fall of 2011 after realizing how many opportunities both the downtown and Anschutz Medical Campus offered to get involved in biomedical research. Initially Moen joined the lab of Professor Lisa Julian, studying small molecular inhibitors for the treatment of multiple myeloma, then moved on to research recombinant adenovirus for broad-spectrum mycobacteria vaccines with Associate Professor of Immunology and Microbiology Jerry Schaack. He received an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program Grant in 2013, with which he studied the use of adenovirus and immuno-stimulants in creating a broad-spectrum vaccine against mycobacteria.
Beyond his time in the labs, Moen remembers having formative experiences in the classroom as well. "[Assistant Professor] Aaron Johnson teaches a class on molecular genetics, and that was a really great course for preparing me for going into research. And Professor [Charles] Ferguson's class on human reproduction was also really great for getting into the mindset of biomedical depths, and figuring out what the world of research is like."
Moen considered becoming a medical doctor and was on the fence about going for a MD/PhD, but learning about other researchers' work in health disparities made Moen realize the impact he could have by focusing on research. "I really enjoyed studying the research and coming to understand the knowledge base behind it." Another critical factor in his decision was time spent volunteering at St. Anthony's Hospital. He worked in the emergency room for more than a year, accruing over 300 hours aiding doctors and staff with patients, and says, "It was one of the best experiences that helped direct me on my path." Moen feels that students considering an MD should get into volunteer situations as early and as often as possible, because the life and work of a doctor can really only be understood and appreciated when it's seen up close.
While at CU Denver Moen would sometimes put in 12–14 hour lab days working on research, and he says that it was ultimately these experiences that cemented the future for him. Though those days were long and sometimes frustrating, he knew he had found his calling because he was always happy to be doing it. He says of doing research now, "If you're really passionate, it won't even feel like you're coming in for a job. I know people say that all the time, but it's not like I go to work every day—it's like I go in to do something I'm having a lot of fun with, and they pay me for it."
Once Moen had ruled out becoming a medical doctor he started focusing on which particular field of biomedical research he wanted to pursue. With a background in both chemistry and molecular biology he knew he had options, and he had to decide if he wanted to go into something translational or more clinical. When he graduated with his BS, Moen's path still wasn't clear, and he says choosing a graduate program then could have ended up defining what he studied for the rest of his career, "I wasn't ready to just go off to grad school at that point. So the Post-bac program at NIH was really a perfect fit for me."
Moen has been able to look at research possibilities from every angle at the National Institute on Aging. He says the labs are huge, up to 70 people working together in some cases, and the backgrounds and approaches of individual researchers are diverse. Moen could have gone to the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Montana, but he says the opportunity to do cardiovascular research was too strong a draw.
Under Dr. Edward G. Lakatta, Moen has been working on Coupled Clock Theory, a new way of understanding how heartbeats are generated. Moen and the team in the lab have been studying how the cells in a certain area of the heart generate the signal that initiates a heartbeat and propagate it throughout the muscle. He says of the theory, "I've been doing a lot of work in whole animal physiology, to come up with evidence for it and see how things are manipulated with it. It's biophysics, explaining how we can quantify these changes in an animal and what can we extract from what we know is happening down at a cellular level."
"This gave me a better idea of the skills I have, and how those skills can best be applied," Moen says. He's excited to apply those skills in a field that is growing all the time, with the expansion of new technologies and methods. He says the face of biomedical research is changing all the time, and that's part of what's so exciting about it to Moen. Looking at work being done in the field of synthetic biology with applications toward biomedical and physiology, he says, "I know I like the molecular aspects of it, but I'm really starting to enjoy more the creation part of it."
When Moen heads to Yale in July he will have the opportunity to continue with synthetic biology. During his first year he will rotate through multiple labs and get experiences working with an even wider array of researchers. He's been talking to Assistant Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology Jessie Rinehart, whose lab focuses on phosphorylation of proteins. In this lab Moen hopes to have the opportunity to generate modified proteins and test them in cell lines to see how the cells are affected, and from there take them into animals to continue researching how phosphorylation affects physiology. The applications of studies like these are wide reaching, including better understanding of diseases like cancer and diabetes. Moen's work will ultimately be applicable to creating interventions (drugs and other treatments) for diseases, as well as contributing a better general understanding of how animal and human bodies function.
There's not one particular disease or application Moen is most drawn to, so the future of how he applies his passion for research is wide open. Because of his time in the cardiovascular lab at NIH he has developed some specific interests in the heart. He says, "Now that I've come here and I've worked on some projects, there's some rare diseases I'm interested in." An example is Glycogen Storage Associated Cardio Myopathies—a disorder in which proteins in cells that regulate metabolism are always active, causing problems in the heart, brain, and metabolism. Regardless of where his path takes him, Moen knows his work can ultimately help people live longer and healthier lives, and he's grateful to have found important work that feels like serious fun while at CU Denver.